Welcome to The Perfect Curve.

Exercises for Improvisation, Composition, and Compovisation

simon gray 2020-01-24, 13:51:28
Read this article aloud — 5263 words

This article was originally written for a module of the Master of Arts in Ethnomusicology which I did in 1996.

Creative music making has always been seen as something which is difficult to do, some thing which is not for the average musician, but which can only be done by certain types of performer: the Jazz musician, the Rock guitarist, etc. Somehow people seem to forget that in 99% of cases their very first experiences with a musical instrument will have been of an improvisatory nature, for how many of us were able to pick our instrument up that first time all those years ago & read & play a piece of music from a piece of paper; indeed how many of us were even able to read music when we first bashed at the keys of the classroom piano as a child ?

Nowadays the ability to play more than just what has been written down by some body else is becoming more & more important, & also to teach this ability to other people. The British National Curriculum for Music has composition as a major part of its syllabus. Music Colleges, such as Birmingham Conservatoire, have as a constituent part of their courses classes in improvisation & composition, & options to take this further for more advanced students. For the professional musician, contemporary music increasingly includes elements where the player must take more responsibility for what happens next, & the jobs in the London Sinfonietta & the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group are going to go to the people who can do this. Additionally, what is the sense in turning down a lucrative recording session for UB40's next album just because you cannot improvise ? Indeed, for a serious career in musical performance the ability to improvise is in this day an essential requirement, rather than a useful addition, of a player's abilities.

This work is intended for use by teachers of music at all levels, whether at a music college where the need is to reawaken the students' long forgotten latent creative abilities, or at a school where your purpose is to make sure these abilities don't go to sleep in the first place. The intention is to work the excercises in groups; between 5 & 10 people is a good number - less than that & there isn't really enough room for interpersonal interaction, & more than that is leading dangerously towards chaos.

It is highly recommended that all work you do is recorded & listened to afterwards, since this is the only way people can know how they are actually sounding, which bits are good & which bits are not so good. Also, you never know, one session might actually produce an embryo masterpiece which is worth writing down & turning into a composition for others to play.


For my purposes here, I feel it is convenient to introduce a new term into the language of creative music, & slightly redefine two old terms.

Composition is the act of sitting down & planning a new piece of music in advance of one or many subsequent performances. The composer is using to create the new piece the product of his or her entire musical education; various techniques, scales, & catchphrases (s)he has picked up along the rocky road of life are bound to make an appearance. The piece may be composed bit by bit, part by part, section by section; but ultimately the important thing that makes it (according to my definition) a composition is the fact that it is preserved in some form (be it recorded, printed, or memorised) for performers to play again on subsequent occasions.

Improvisation is related to composition, in that it is often described as 'composition in real time'. In my definition scheme, the important aspect which makes a creative act an improvisation is the fact that the new music that is being created is significantly based on material that has already been composed. Perhaps the most obvious illustrative example of this is in jazz or folk music - the pieces being improvised upon have already been composed, often by another, & the improviser is adding their own new music to the material already extant.

Compovisation is the natural fusion of techniques used in the practice of Composition & Improvisation. In coining this term, I feel it is necessary to make a distinction between this & the definitions of composition & improvisation stated above, which, although certainly a musician will be using composition techniques during a standard improvisation, & probably vice versa, they will still be mainly concerned with the one & not really interested in the other. As an example, a composer will be writing their music down from their mind's working out, using whatever techniques they use, & may occasionally improvise some rhythms, melodies, & chords at some instrument or other in order to furnish themselves with some musical material. An improviser on the other hand may be in a jazz group improvising a solo during a performance of Thelonious Monk's 'Well You Needn't'. The piece has already been composed; the soloist is making up their own part to augment the musical material already established - it is acknowledged that they are playing Thelonious Monk's music written some time ago, not their own music written now. The Compoviser has as their starting point nothing or at most very little in comparison. It might be an Indian Raga or Mela, an Arabic Maqam, a Persian Dastgah, or a Medieval Church Mode. It might even be only the tacit agreement between the musicians in a free - form jazz group that when they are playing together, whatever happens they will not get in each other's faces & will go with whoever has the strongest musical idea at any given snapshot in time. A compoviser is truly composing in real time, & radically different processes are taking place than when in the act of improvising or composing which make new terminology necessary.

A compovisation does not need to be restricted to the original event when it was created. If, for example, the sitarist's raga performance is recorded in a form where a musician can then recreate that performance on a subsequent occasion with a comparitively small degree of variation from the original, then that piece has become a composition. The performer might indeed like to improvise with the new composition. A musician may also use compovisation with the sole purpose of creating a composition, without any need for an audience or a live concert: One might be in a recording studio using a computer & MIDI equipment to build up a piece part by part, playing in each part 'live', & reacting to previously recorded parts & parts that are known to be recorded in the future with the same scarcity of predecided material as in a dastgah performance, & the same spontaneity of creation as exhibited by the free jazz group.


The following barriers exist to prevent an inexperienced musician from creating music in any improvised manner:

1: Inhibitions
2: Lack of knowledge of the processes involved
3: Lack of ability to communicate
4: Lack of ability to express oneself effectively on one's instrument
5: Lack of desire to do so in the first place

Clearly, barrier #5 will be insurmountable at any given time, so it is not worth even attempting to overcome it. Barrier #4 is not really relevant here; the musician involved should practise their instrument sufficiently so that they can express themselves effectively. Barrier #1 is, to me, the most sigificant, & may or may not, depending on the individual concerned, be linked to #2 & #3. It is the purpose of these exercises to overcome them, & if the individual follows them properly, & can be sure of not being hampered by #4 & #5, then they will finish being expert compovisers.

Cycle around the exercises in whatever order you deem specifically appropriate (though do bear in mind that they are in this order for a reason), spending as much time as is required on each one at a time, being aware of course that it makes more sense to spend less time on them with beginners & increase the time on a gradient as people get more advanced. If you feel that whilst cycling around any particular exercise has outlived its usefulness with the given group, then obviously don't keep labouring upon it, as this will only be counterproductive by boring people. Likewise, remember that these exercises are far from exhaustive, & you are encouraged to adapt these exercises & devise new ones of your own.

I have found that when rehearsing groups generally & when working these exercises specifically that the most efficient layout to have the players sit is in a circle - as tight a circle as can be comfortable managed. The reason for this is because an essential component of this work is interpersonal communication - the players need to see & hear each other with a clear line of sight & sound. Unfortunately I have also found that most musicians, especially orchestral ones, tend to be lazy about sitting in a circle, so you may have to exert your authority in pursuading them to sit where you want them to. If you have the opportunity to, it is best to prepare the room beforehand with the chairs already set out this way. If you can perform the exercises in the dark, then so much the better; darkness stimulates the imagination, & also lessens the problem of embarrassment - if nobody can see you, then they don't know it was you who played a dodgy note !

The Exercises

Exercise #0


Purpose:To focus the minds of the participants into the tasks ahead, & to aclimatise their ears to static, focussed sounds.

Action:Whilst still sat in the circle, the group hums a single note that is comfortable to every body's range. Spend a few seconds getting it in tune. Then, when it is settled, each person in turn sings a word of their choice, 'Stockhausen - style'. It can be any word; their name, somebody else's name, or whatever. Go around the circle at least once.

Notes:If the participants are not embarrassed about performing this exercise, then that is good; they obviously understand the purpose & inhibitions are not likely to be a major problem in the future. If any body is embarrassed, then this is useful for you to see too; latent inhibitions have manifested themselves early & you will be able to act on this. If an individual deems that they have made a fool out of themselves by humming their name in a circle, then being a fool later on when they have to demonstrate their perceived inability to improvise should no longer matter to them. Do not take this for granted, however, only you with your own personal knowledge & the fact that you are on the spot at the time can make accurate judgements as to what is going on.

Exercise #1

Name: Chords

Purpose:An initial compovisational exercise. Basic aural skills of listening to other musicians & knowing what they are playing are developed, along with building up people's confidence to play a note & worry less about whether it was the 'right' note.

Action:Somebody, probably you, sits at a piano. It could be a vibraphone, or a synthesiser, or bells or whatever, but a piano is most likely to be at hand. You choose a note, any note will do. Keeping the sustain pedal depressed, you repeatedly play this note with a moderate crotchet pulse in the four octaves that your two hands will allow you. The first person in the circle then plays a long note of their own choosing on their instrument. They must stick with the first note chosen & not change it. They must also keep holding the note on, without stopping, though of course they are allowed to breathe etc. Then the next person joins in with a note, & the next, & so on around the circle. When it gets back to the start, the first person then plays another, different, note & it goes around again until you get bored & stop.

Notes:The participants shouldn't really play any old note at random, rather they should use their ears to try & work out what note they should choose to play in order to make an overall pleasing sound. However, the temptation for every body to end up producing a quaint little C major chord should be avoided at all costs (!), as the object is to show that dissonance is a pleasing sound. This is why people are not allowed to correct their mistakes, which will inevitably occur unless the entire group possesses the facility of perfect pitch.

Further developments of this exercise could include things such as people not having to keep the note sustained all the time, & thus introducing space & dynamics to the proceedings. Also, people can be allowed to change the note that they are playing at any time rather than waiting their turn, so allowing a much faster change in the ensuing harmonies. The person playing the piano can also change note occasionally, as well as tempo, & can introduce accented notes into the pulse to make the overall sound more interesting; in addition they might like to throw the odd chord in to the mix.

The exercise is deemed to be successful when the participants are obviously not shy about taking part in it, & you won't need to labour on it further. However, it is a useful exercise to come back to it occasionally afterwards as the group gets more advanced, & compare results. For this reason, it is a good idea if possible to record all of your sessions & play them back afterwards.

Exercise #2

Name: Rhythm

Purpose: To develop the participants' rhythmic skills.

Action: An audible metronome is set ticking to a 4/4 beat at a moderate tempo. Better still, if you have access to a drum machine, then set that grooving away with a fairly simple beat. Alternatively, you keep the pulse going yourself. Each person is given a simple hand percussion instrument, such as a woodblock, claves, guiro, etc. If there are not enough instruments to go around then some people will have to clap, but be careful to distribute these people evenly around the circle rather than having them all bunched together at the end. The first person starts playing a rhythm on top, any rhythm they like (excluding irrational rhythms such as 13 in the time of 16; this is just trying to be clever & not helping any body); though be particularly aware that if each individual plays a simple rhythm to start with, the overall effect is likely to be more successful - stress upon the participants that we are not engaged in a competition to see who can play the cleverest rhythm, we are engaged in an exercise to produce an excellent group output. After a pause of a set number of bars the next person joins in, playing a different rhythm. Then the next person joins in, & so on around the circle. People do not need to wait for a complete revolution to change their own rhythm, rather they change after another pre - agreed number of bars. This continues until a natural end is reached.

Notes: When 4/4 has been mastered, change the timing to things such as 3/4, 5/4, 6/8, 10/8, etc. Make sure you do add the so - called 'complex' timings, as the myth that they are more difficult to play than simple ones needs to be exploded. You can also change the tempo as you wish. As with Exercise #1, introduce space & dynamic to the proceedings by allowing people to stop playing for a while. Something else you can do, which can be quite fun if taken seriously, is to have one person without an instrument (or not clapping as the case may be), ie dothing nothing other than listening. After a set number of bars the person sitting next to them stops playing & hands them their instrument, & after another interval the new person starts playing. This passes around the circle as with the rhythms, so that every body ends up having played at least two instruments by the end. Try having the instrument changing going around in the opposite direction to that which people joined in. Try having a different set number of bars for each different event, such as joining in, resting, changing rhythm, instrument, & so on.

In all of the Exercises you will need to keep careful control over proceedings to make sure that things don't degenerate into anarchy through silly behaviour, but experience shows that this one can be particularly anarchy prone; as it is unfortunately the case that a number of people who play predominantly melodic instruments have a tendency to look down on percussion (for example, the 'kitchen sink department' of an orchestra, just a 'knocking noise in the background' of a big band), & the embarrassment caused by having to play it themselves can cause them to act up in this way. Once again, this knowledge can be useful to you, because if they can get over the shame of performing what they deem to be an inferior musical activity then they should have no excuse for not being able to get over any inhibitions later on when they have to start doing more difficult improvisation work. If you have any trained percussionists in the group, then this should be useful as they will be instinctively able to play more interesting rhythms straight off, which should provide ideas for those less experienced in rhythm.

Be careful to make sure people only change their state with relation to the set number of bars. This is not to hamper any body's creativity, but rather to instill from the beginning the discipline of working in phrases, rather than just playing slap - dash any old how & where.

Exercise #3

Name: Modes

Purpose: To develop the musician's ability to improvise with relation to a drone.

Action: A mode is chosen. It could be any mode, but a relatively 'normal' sounding one such as the Dorian mode is recommended initially, though the Ionian mode is most definitely not recommended, as the likelihood of producing twee little tunes is too horrible to contemplate. All the people in the group play a drone note in the background of the agreed 'tonic' that you are going to be working around. Do not add the 5th degree to the drone, because that complicates things needlessly, & also can tend to incite people to try to mimic the Scottish bagpipe stereotype, which is both incorrect, corny, & not pleasing to listen to. Going around the circle, each person in turn plays a melody in the mode, without much regard for any pulse. Start off short & simple, just a few notes will do at first, & gradually build up the length & complexity of what is played as people get more comfortable & more experienced. Finish when a natural end seems to have been reached, but go around the circle at least twice.

Notes: When the Dorian mode has been exhausted, try some other modes, particularly the Phrygian, the Lydian, & the Locrian ones, as the more exotic sound can provide useful ideas to people, as well as further training for the ear to accept dissonance. For the more advanced, using some Indian ragas can be useful, & a few examples are provided in the appendix. When free arhythmic playing gets boring, try introducing some pulse of some description into the proceedings.

It will probably be helpful for the group or individual to sing through a few medieval plainchants etc., in order to get the modal sound firmly established in peoples' minds in a musical context, as opposed to one's initial experiments with a keyboard when one is younger. Try changing modes during the course of a run. You could change the note to drone on part way through a few times as well, either announcing the new note or letting the participants use their ears to try & find it themselves. Be careful to point out to people when they are playing endless streams of notes without any gaps. It is often forgotten, even by advanced musicians, that space & phrasing is just as important an element in music as the notes themselves, so this tendency should be nipped in the bud from the outset. As each persons' turn gets longer, encourage them to play actual phrases with musical full stops & commas rather than just inconsequential meandering.

It is at this point where signs of being inhibited are going to become very obvious indeed; people are still only playing a few notes after repeated repetitions when every body else has started producing concertos, or they are playing for quite a long time but only sticking to one octave. If the whole group seems to be working like this, then you need to intervene by demonstrating a few ideas of how to be more interesting. Be careful not to intimidate people by playing something excessively flashy & difficult, rather just do something slighty better than the best thing done already.

Cycle around Exercises #1 to #3 a few times, & do not start to introduce Exercise #4 until some mastery of the earlier principles has been attained.

Exercise #4

Name: Chords & Solos

Purpose: To consolidate what has been learned so far, & to prepare for what is to follow.

Action: A mode is chosen. You sit at the piano & play the root of the mode in a crotchet pulse, in much the same manner as Exercise #1, & each player joins in & holds a single note of their choosing as before, only this time the note they choose must be part of the initial mode. When a few people have started playing (at least 4), then people may start changing their notes to set up continuously shifting harmonies. At the appropriate moment, when every body has joined in is a good one, the first person then starts playing a solo over the top of it in much the same manner as Exercise #3, using their ears to pick up & highlight some of the changing harmonies. When they have finished, there is a suitable wait, & the next person has a turn, & so on around the circle, until it is time to stop.

Notes: When the first mode is exhausted, try another one, & another one. Don't just stick to the western modes, try a few of the eastern ones. The ultimate aim is to be able to play in a mode which consists of all twelve notes of the western chromatic scale, as a development of the earlier aim of getting used to the sound of dissonance & finding it pleasing. Change other aspects, as before, like the root note, the dynamics, & the density of orchestration.

Exercise #5

Name: First Composition

Purpose: To get people starting to write music down, & practise composition themselves.

Action: By now people should have a few basic ideas about organisation of music, & so the next logical step is for them to write these ideas down. Each person should use what they have already experienced in the preceding exercises, & write down a few structures themselves. The results do not have to be wildly original, what is important is the fact that people are actually doing something. Use devices that have been used improvisationally such as changing orchestration, mode, pulse, speed, etc. Each piece should be played through by the group at least once. Don't have a block of only composed pieces; rather intersperse these with work on the other exercises.

Exercise #6

Name: Chords, Solos, & Rhythms

Purpose: Further development of earlier work.

Action: The group is divided up into people who are going to play chords (as in Exercise #1), rhythms (Exercise #2), & solos (Exercise #3). Starting modes, times, & speeds are chosen. The rhythmic people start, then the chord people, then the melody people cycle around. Finish when you finish.

Notes: By now you will have got the idea of how to develop this, by changing modes, times, & speeds as & when, & working towards using all 12 notes. Have the people who are doing the various different things rotate around one by one as before during the run, so that people get a chance to do all 3 things.

Exercise #7

Name: Basslines

Purpose: To learn to play over the top of simple basslines.

Action: A bassline is chosen - either one of your devising, or better still, one devised by members of the group, perhaps as part of the previous exercise. A person playing a bass instrument is given the task of repeating it, or better still, several people can share the responsibility. If there is nobody playing a suitable instrument, then you will have to handle it on the piano or synthesiser. If you still have the drum machine from exercise #2 then use that to accompany the group, as this should make things easier. As usual, each person takes it in turn to play a solo on top, starting as simply as necessary (remembering that by now people should be reasonably competant) & gradually getting longer & more complex.

Notes: Use simpler basslines in the early stages, & gradually move on to more involved ones. When everybody is comfortable with playing this exercise, which by now should be sooner rather than later, then you can start to encourage other people within the group to start adding harmonies & counter melodies etc. underneath the soloist. Remember to make sure however that those playing underneath bear in mind that they are only accompanying, so that they do not overpower the soloist by playing all the time, too loudly, too densely etc. Knowing when to leave a space in the music is still just as important as knowing when to fill the hole in.

By now the group members should have some facility in compovisation in a general sense; the preceding exercises should have given them enough confidence to begin to explore improvisation in jazz (both 'normal' & free - form); if they are interested in performing folk music, they will be able to make the 16 bar tunes come alive by incorporating their own arrangements of them, & if they are intending to perform Stockhausen's improvisation works, they should now have sufficient creative imagination that the short poetic verses & single lines of music can become a large 20 minute group performance. The final exercise deals with a specific form of 'compovisation', that of classical Persian music, which requires some prior explanation.

The initial starting point that is used for performing Persian music is the Dastgah - this can be compared with the Indian Raga (or perhaps more accurately the That), or the western mediæval Church Modes; there are 12 of these dastgah-e. To be more specific, each dastgah is a collection of melodic fragments (called gusheh-e) which are used as starting points for compovisation. Unlike the melodic 'catch phrases' of a raga, however, which are just 'known' by performers 'because', the gusheh-e are actually available in a printed form, known as the Radif (translated literally as 'row'). Performers of Persian music memorise the gusheh-e, & because of the vast number in the radif, most people tend to concentrate on learning 2 or 3 dastgah-e rather than all 12. A few gusheh-e from 2 dastgah-e (Shur & Segah) are included in the appendix. It must be stressed that these fragments are used only for starting points in compovisation - the musician doesn't simply play through them in sequence.

Whereas Indian music is often performed by soloists, Persian music is typically an ensemble affair; 4 or 5 melody instrumentalists, a singer, & 1 or 2 percussionists make up the usual Persian ensemble. Improvised music is freely mixed with pre-composed music in the standard dastgah performance. The generic structure for a performance goes as follows: the whole ensemble plays a Pish-Daramad, which is a piece composed (often, though not always, by the leader of the ensemble) in the overiding mode of the chosen dastgah, usually in a 4/4 metre, & may last for a few minutes. There is no harmony in Persian music, so each member of the ensemble plays the piece in unison, though textural interest is added by the fact that the piece is performed with a degree of improvised ornamentation on the part of the individual musicians. Then the members of the ensemble each in turn perform a free (typically arhythmic) improvisation in the dastgah, interspersed by shorter composed instrumental ensemble interludes called Tasnif. The performance ends with another extended composition called a Reng, which is typically in a 6/8 dance feel.

The accompaniment for the solo improvised passages is traditionally heterophonic; that is to say, the soloist is improvising away, & one of the other instrumentalists is carefully listening to what the soloist is playing, picking out key phrases & echoing them in the background (taking care to remain in the background) as a kind of 'dialogue'; thus the effect is of a manner of 'fluid drone', as opposed to the usually static drone of Indian music. At times the soloist will decide to move from the highly rubato playing to more rhythmic playing, at which points the percussionists shall join in.

The final exercise involves the members of the group first devising a 'dastgah' of there own, by making up a mode (or choosing one already available), & composing some short gusheh-e in that mode; approximately 10 - 20 should suffice. From this dastgah, they will also compose a pish-daramad & a reng (around 40 - 60 bars long), & a few tasnif-he (perhaps 8 or 16 bars long). With this, they shall organise a group improvisation using the format described above.


Brought to you by simon gray. Also find me on Mastodon

The code behind this site is a bit of an abandoned project; I originally had lofty ambitions of it being the start of a competitor for Twitter and Facebook, allowing other people to also use it turning it into a bit of a social network. Needless to say I got so far with it and thought who did I think I was! Bits of it don't work as well as I'd like it to work - at some point I'm going to return to it and do a complete rebuild according to modern standards.